The UN, bless ’em, has come to the conclusion that drafting international human rights agreements for countries to sign is all well and good. But the countries most likely to sign are the ones whose citizens are least likely to need their protection.
And when they do sign up, as Thailand has been doing, many countries tend to think the hard work is now done and they can pat themselves on the back for doing their bit for human rights. Doing something that actually protects human rights is, well, it’s not easy you know, there’s other things to consider, like national security and, er, unity, yes, that’s maybe something we have to achieve first before we can get round to, er, what was it we committed ourselves to again?
But if respecting human rights is a bit too much of an ask, at least they should write their reports on schedule. Except that they have other priorities, ask for postponements, it must have fallen out of my bag on the way to the UN, the dog ate it, sir.
When a document does finally get to Geneva, it normally bears the imprint of the best wafflers that the submitting government has in its employ. You get lengthy discourses on the unique and terribly difficult historical context that makes human rights an especially fraught challenge in their particular country. This makes for plenty of safe padding in which to hide mealy-mouthed excuses for those human rights violations that are too well-documented or too egregious to be simply ignored or denied away.
Civil society is supposed to be able to submit a shadow report that fills in the gaps of the official government report and exposes its shortcomings. But it’s a sad dictatorship that can’t keep its stroppier citizens under-resourced, disorganized and quiet. As quiet as the prison cell or the grave, in some places.
So when the worst offenders don’t sign up in the first place, and when many of those that do, don’t even bother doing their homework assignments, and when most of the homework assignments are anodyne exercises in self-exculpation, the system has a large number of gaps for the victims of human rights violations to fall through.
So a couple of years ago, the Universal Periodic Review process was started. Universal, because every one of the 192 UN member states has to undergo it, periodic because every country is supposed to get reviewed in each 4-year cycle, and review, because, well, there’s the problem.
The idea is that every country, no matter what treaties it has or has not signed, has to come up with a report on their human rights situation under strict limitations on number of words and restrictions on the waffle quotient. This is accompanied by a report by the UN based on any other human rights reports there have been on this country (because they have signed specific conventions, because of special rapporteur visits, etc.) and a third report compiled by the UN from submissions by civil society organizations.
Each country then has a 3-hour exam where their reports are commented on by a ‘troika’ of 3 other countries chosen by lot and where they can be given recommendations by any other country.
Now Thailand has lucked out in the timetable lottery. Its exam will take place 2 years from now in the very last session of the 4-year cycle. So they have the opportunity to see how everybody else goes about cramming for their exam before they take their own test.
But even that is not quite enough. Thailand is a country in need. The UN has to help coach it through this process. It has to bring in special trainers from countries that have already been through the fire. And it has to support 5-star hotels by organizing the coaching sessions in their function rooms.
One of Thailand’s special coaches was from Vietnam, whose valuable advice was avidly scribbled down in notes by Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials. The report written by Vietnam is apparently a paragon example. It is 19 pages on the wonderful achievements of Vietnam in human rights and 1 page of ‘difficulties and challenges’, such as the fact that Vietnam is over 2000 km north to south and we all know how diluted human rights can get with distance.
Miraculously, Vietnam’s report on itself fails to mention any actual violations of human rights. It tells us that freedom of expression is guaranteed in Vietnam as proved by the numbers of publications, ‘licensed’ journalists, radio and TV stations, etc. But somehow it doesn’t say that 30 people are in jail just for calling for democracy and human rights. The government instead says that such discussions are propaganda against the state and a threat to national security.
The report also tells us that ‘Viet Nam considers religion and belief a legitimate need of the people and has made continuous efforts to create better conditions for religious and belief activities’. It doesn’t tell us that the Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, 87, Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Viet Nam, died last year after 30 years of better conditions for religious and belief activities in the form of imprisonment and house arrest.
But so what, you may cry. In the exam, other countries can call their bluff, expose their shortcomings, strip away the whitewash.
Ah, but not if we are all friends in ASEAN. What improvements in human rights did Thailand, for example, recommend to Vietnam? It asked their non-interfering neighbours to ‘continue providing and expanding human rights education and training for all relevant Government authorities to build capacities of officials’ and to ‘continue its poverty reduction efforts’.
Now is that hard-hitting or what? How come Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch don’t throw those kinds of punches at human rights violators?
OK, you might say. But Vietnam must have some enemies. One of them must get the chance to put the boot in. Well, perhaps not. See, this system of puffball recommendations is gathering momentum. Friends of Malaysia were reportedly lining up at 5.45 am on the day of Malaysia’s exam to make sure they got their pat-on-the-back recommendations in first and could crowd out anything more critical.
By the time Thailand’s turn comes, they will have thrown their powder-puff recommendations at so many other countries, that is all that will be coming back at them.
So the UPR process, so noble in its intentions, will have become an exercise in Uncritical Public Relations.
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).